Changing his drink
U 7.246-53: ’neath the shadows cast o’er its pensive bosom by the
overarching leafage of the giants of the forest. What about that, Simon? he
asked over the fringe of his newspaper. How’s that for high?
— Changing his drink,
Mr Dedalus said.
laughing, struck the newspaper on his knees, repeating:
— The pensive bosom and the overarsing
leafage. O boys! O boys!
Why does Simon Dedalus say – or at least
suggest - that Limerick-born businessman, MP and civic reformer Charles Dawson
is “changing his drink” when he hears Ned Lambert intoning a paragraph of
“high” (= lofty, elevated) and florid prose from the newspaper? Why does this
make Ned laugh? The questions have puzzled the Charles Peake seminar:1
"Changing his drink":
we had trouble with this joke, inasmuch as it is either itself a bit 'high' for
us – though not, it would seem, for Ned Lambert – or it is simply not one of
Simon’s best. A reference to the effect of mixing one’s drinks, or to opting
for something more expensive than the usual when it is someone else’s turn to
pay for a round?
The origin of the joke seems to lie in the
disjunction between Charles Dawson’s normally down-to-earth, sometimes humorous
and “charming”, factual, nationalist rhetorical style and the sentimental,
poetic mode Joyce chooses for the text ascribed to him in the newspaper. The
following extracts show Dawson’s typical style of delivery:
I will not trouble
you with all the details of land systems existing in Prussia and other German
States prior to the establishment of the feudal system. Up to the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries the tiller of the soil held his land under the allodial
system, when the peasant was in perfect possession.
(1902), 31 January, p. 1
Mr. Dawson put before
the Conference "one definite, concrete, practical, possible, and profitable
antidote to emigration, viz., the re-planting of the waste lands in Ireland".
(1905), 13 October, p. 6
But the amusement stems partially from the
use of the expression “changing his drink”. Although this sounds unusual to us
today, it was in fact a common expression often used in the context of
speech-making and reporting in Joyce’s day:
He had not long begun
[his talk] when it appeared, from the yawning and sleepy appearance of his
audience, that it was not stuff to their taste. He closed his paper, changed
his drink, and gave them something extempore […] and there was no more
(1859), 14 December
"No," retorted Carpenter, instantly; "don't put him out;
change his drink
!" During the
delivery of the so-called "Janesville speech", the effect of which was a matter
of some anxiety to Mr. Carpenter, a confusion occurred at the rear of the hall
Joseph Wesley Donovan
Trials and Advocates
(1881), p. 570
We are pained to
notice that his habit of playing on the edge of the piano, two inches away from
the keys, grows upon him, and he should either change his drink or his
(St Peter Port)
(1883), 15 February
editor of the Republican needs to adjust his glasses or change his drinks as he
says "it was a bit ungracious" for us to not predict the election of Judge
Glenn in our acrostic, "Signs of the Times", last week.
(Hartford, Kentucky) (1917), 17 October, p. 4
At times the expression was commandeered for
more explosive contexts:
changing the drinks on us; they are using new and different kinds
of high explosive shells, and it is only natural that surgery in war is
changing because of the effect on the tissues when we get a new deal.
Battle Training of Medical Officers during
the Great War
(pt. 2) (1918) (United States Army Sanitary School, Langres, France)
Changing one’s drink involved changing from
one type of drink to another – and typically from beer to something stronger,
such as brandy. If Charles Dawson had really “changed his drink” in this way,
we can see how his earthy, factual rhetorical speaking style might have become
laughingly transformed into early Victorian purple poetics.